September 17, 2017

Moving to Management: More a Coach Than a Boss | Blatant Berry

“I love that mea culpa, John!” said the president of the company at which I was working. I had just told the folks at a meeting that a problem had been my fault. I don’t even remember what that problem was, but what the president said was one of the most important lessons of my career. I had just been promoted to the highest level of management I would ever achieve. I was pleased by what he said but also a little embarrassed.

Just a few days ago, I had lunch with Erin Shea, one of my former students who is now branch supervisor at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT. I try to stay in touch with my students, hear how their careers are developing, and enjoy their progress.

Erin and I talked about the challenges of moving from a line job in a library to a supervisory or management post. Erin said she still likes all the staffers who were her close friends before her promotion, yet those relationships have changed. She misses some of the camaraderie experienced when they were all on the same level. That conversation and my reading Steven Bell’s “What Not To Do: Tips for New Library Leaders” (Leading from the Library, a few days later took me back to the time when I was navigating the progress of my own career.

The move up to management was challenging and a bit frightening. Unfortunately, it was, and still is, the only way to get a decent salary increase and the autonomy to participate more broadly in decisions about service and policy, professional activities, community interaction, and governance. It means more frequent meetings, some with leaders and top managers both in the library and in town or on campus and with staff.

Such advancement requires style and personality adjustments and the development of new skills and talents. I had never learned those skills in graduate school or on previous jobs. It didn’t take long to realize that the terms supervisory and management are grossly inaccurate. Titles such as “boss” or “chief” deliver the wrong message. To be in charge is to dedicate your talents and authority to making the library serve more effectively. It is more like coaching than bossing, and often the members of the team are more experienced and gifted than the individual in charge.

A great manager tries to bring out the best in everyone in the group and keep them focused on the success of the enterprise. That frequently means trying to change habits and old views of the relationship between staff and patrons and with management. Old practices can be deeply entrenched, and staff resistance might be intransigent. It is difficult to convince some that patrons are not the problem; that adolescents are welcome; that rules can be bent and even disregarded or rewritten. These encounters with employees were more common than I expected both for me and for my ex-students as our careers proceeded.

One colleague told me how she had to make a librarian take a teenager to lunch weekly to encourage an attitude change. Another talked of the angry resistance he encountered when he removed that library’s ban on lending to patrons with unpaid fines. A college librarian said she was chastised by staff for allowing the release of the grades of a student despite an unreturned book.

One of the most difficult reactions I encountered was the automatic assumption that any decision I made about a patron or an issue was a rule to be followed in every situation. I had to convince some entrenched staff that rules do not have to be applied in precisely the same way to every patron or subordinate across the board but can be altered to fit on a case by case basis.

My mea culpa moment contained one of the most important lessons of my career. When you move up to management you become responsible for everything that happens in your department or library. When you are the manager, everything that happens is your “fault.” The blame—and/or the credit—belongs to the person in charge. It can be a daunting prospect, but the chance to make a change for the better is worth it.




This article was published in Library Journal's September 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

Design Institute Heads to Washington!
On Friday, October 20, in partnership with Fort Vancouver Regional Library—at its award-winning Vancouver Community Library (WA)—the newest installment of Library Journal’s building and design event will provide ideas and inspiration for renovating, retrofitting, or re-building your library, no matter your budget!
Designing the Future: A Design Thinking Workshop
The challenges facing libraries are real, complex, and varied. As such, they require new points of view, tools, and strategies. This full-day workshop on October 17 at Hartford Public Library (CT) will tackle real-life problems during a series of collaborative exercises led by experienced design thinking facilitators from Chicago Public Library. Please call 646-380-0773 to inquire about our discounted team rates.


  1. Thank you John for mentioning my recent column with advice for new leaders. Your discussion of coaching as a leadership skill reminded me of one of my old columns (from 2013) in which I pondered the difference being coaching and “captaining”. I suggested that I’d rather be a captain than a coach – although at times we may all need to do some coaching – even if we try to stick to captaining. Well, if you want to take a look to see what i was talking about…

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  4. Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media, per our Terms of Use.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind